Stretching Out the Unravelling
Editor's Note: The document below is extracted from Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume X. It appears on pp.371 - 382 of the original PDF, linked below. (Page numbers refer to the marked page numbers in the original document; these differ from the PDF reader's designation of pages because of tables of contents, appendices, etc.)
The meeting described in this document took place roughly one month before the congressionally-mandated halt to the American bombing of Cambodia, and it reflects the Nixon Administration's uncertainty regarding the consequences of the halt. Several points are worthy of note. In particular, the Administration's description of Cambodia's importance is remarkably blunt: "The Phnom Penh Government is trying to bargain for a cease-fire. But the importance of Cambodia to the U.S. is its impact on South Vietnam."
The Administration's limited goals with regard to Cambodia are also described in clear terms. Noting that unrestricted access to Cambodia would benefit the communists in Vietnam, George Carver -- the Central Intelligence Agency's special assistant for Vietnamese affairs -- pointed out that "This argues for stretching out the Cambodian unravelling. If we don't care, it can happen faster." Even by 1973, the collapse of the Lon Nol government was a foregone conclusion.
A PDF version of the original document can be downloaded from this site by clicking here. The document was retrieved from the website of the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. The document and the accompanying press release are at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v10.
Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H-117, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
Washington, July 10, 1973, 3:12-4:36 p.m.
Henry A. Kissinger
Robert C. Hill
Adm. Thomas H. Moorer
Gen. Vernon Walters
B/Gen. Brent Scowcroft
Jeanne W. Davis
SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS
It was agreed:
- to prepare a paper detailing what U.S. activities are still possible in Indochina under the Congressional cut-off of funds;NSC memorandum, "Additional Assistance for Cambodia," July 11; ibid., RG 218, Records of the Chairman, Records of Thomas Moorer, Box 091, Cambodia, June-December 1973.
- that a Working Group would prepare a package of what more the U.S. could do to assist Cambodia militarily, economically and politically in the next five weeks.An interagency working group convened at the Executive Office Building on July 11. A record of that meeting and memorandum of major conclusions are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H-117, WSAG Meeting Minutes, Originals, 1973.
- That General Weyand would look into the possibility of Thai and South Vietnamese support for Phnom Penh.
Mr. Kissinger: I'd like to review where we stand in Indochina and where we will be by August 15. Could we have the CIA briefing?
Gen. Walters briefed from the text at Tab A.Walters's briefing, "The Situation in Cambodia," July 10, attached but not printed.
Mr. Kissinger: (referring to comments in the briefing) You should remember that the President was the last member of the Administration to accede to the Congressional ban on funding. How long do you think it will be before another major offensive?
Gen. Walters: Another six months.
Mr. Kissinger: It looks as though George (Carver) disagrees.
Mr. Carver: My colleagues feel a little more strongly on six months than I.
Mr. Kissinger: You think it will be earlier?
Mr. Carver: I haven't made up my mind. If the North Vietnamese believe our hands are tied, their confidence will be increased.
Adm. Moorer: They haven't complied with the agreement in any way in the logistics area.
Mr. Carver: And they're building a new superhighway to run supplies down.
Mr. Porter: They're waiting until they see the form and shape of an aid program.
Mr. Kissinger: Does CIA have any estimate of a Soviet or Chinese supply effort to the North Vietnamese.
Mr. Carver: We have had no pictures of the border lately. We only flew two missions and they were a long time ago.
Mr. Kissinger: I thought we were flying one a week?
Mr. Carver: No. We've had had cloud cover, but we flew the missions primarily to exercise their radar and send them a signal. We will be flying an off-shore mission in the next five days, however, which will give us photography of the coastal area.
Adm. Moorer: The minesweeper people say the traffic is continuing.
Mr. Carver: We'll give you our best guess.
Mr. Kissinger: How do you explain Sihanouk's appeal for arms and ammunition?In a speech in Beijing, Sihanouk appealed to third world countries for arms and ammunition for the Khmer insurgency. (Telegram 133714 to East Asian posts, July 9; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
Adm. Moorer: They're getting short.
Mr. Kissinger: Aren't the North Vietnamese supplying them?
(Mr. Colby arrived and Gen. Walters left the meeting)
Mr. Carver: Yes, but they want more from wherever they can get it.
Mr. Kissinger: Did I understand you correctly that Cambodian commanders are now pocketing the pay of actual troops, not just that of the phantoms?
Mr. Colby: Yes.
Mr. Kissinger: What do you think will happen on August 15?
Mr. Colby: We have prepared a paper on that (circulated the paper at Tab B).CIA Memorandum, "Implications for Communist Conduct of the Congressional Restrictions on U.S. Military Activities in Indochina," July 10, attached but not printed.
Mr. Kissinger: (referring to the paper) I get from this that you don't expect the negotiations to succeed before August 15.
Mr. Colby: I don't know much about actual negotiations. In the absence of a negotiation, they will keep pushing, but they will try to get what they want through a negotiated solution rather than a mass military movement.
Adm. Moorer: The Cambodian Ambassador told me this morning that the Communist leaders are sticking right by Sihanouk -- that Sihanouk has no real influence and is being used as a front with the Communists telling him what to say.
Mr. Colby: Sihanouk has reestablished some relations with the North Vietnamese.
Mr. Carver: They're keeping Sihanouk on a short leash and they're using him to support their claim that they are not revolutionaries -- that they're supporting the legitimate government. The price for Sihanouk is to do what he's told.
Adm. Moorer: The Ambassador claims Sihanouk won't last -- that he has no real power base.
Mr. Porter: The Communists have assured him of tenure for life.
Mr. Kissinger: On August 15 will the whole thing come apart?
Mr. Carver: I'll answer a question with a question. Can we keep up the resupply?
Mr. Colby: I think the situation will ooze away.
Mr. Kissinger: What is the answer on resupply?
Adm. Moorer: The Pentagon lawyers say we can conduct unarmed reconnaissance, airlift of rice and medicine, and air delivery of replacement MAP equipment.
Mr. Kissinger: But air delivery of other equipment is illegal?
Adm. Moorer: Well, we couldn't airlift bombs and drop them before we landed.
Mr. Colby: Could you airlift to beleaguered units in the field?
Adm. Moorer: Food or medicine, but we can't drop ammunition to a beleaguered garrison. At least that's what is in the minds of Congress.
Mr. Kissinger: Are we asking them?
Adm. Moorer: No. But in deciding whether something could be interpreted as a violation, the question is whether to try to solve it in advance or to wait until we're caught.
Mr. Kissinger: Whom would we go to on the Congress for an opinion?
Adm. Moorer: Senator Mondale, Mahon, McClelland.
Mr. Clements: Don't do it without consulting Mahon.
Mr. Colby: The question is involvement of US military force in hostilities.
Adm. Moorer: It depends on the definition of hostilities. Airlift support is not hostilities.
Mr. Porter: What if you're shot at?
Adm. Moorer: It's okay if you don't shoot back.
Mr. Porter: You can't supply a beleaguered garrison without getting shot at.
Mr. Kissinger: Why not? Let's get a paper within the next 48 hours or an indication of what possibilities there are and what bases have to be covered to make some of these things possible. If it requires talking to Senators Mahon and Stennis, let's do it.
Adm. Moorer: Include unarmed recce, including Comint and Elint.
Mr. Kissinger: Then what?
Mr. Carver: If the situation does unravel, it should be at a rather slow rate.
Mr. Kissinger: What is a slow rate?
Mr. Carver: Five or six months?
Mr. Kissinger: After which, Phnom Penh falls?
Mr. Colby: Prior to which they might work out some settlement, leading to the departure of some leaders to the Riviera and the assumption of power by the other side.
Mr. Kissinger: This would happen in the best of circumstances?
Mr. Colby: Yes.
Mr. Kissinger: What if we should continue the bombing?
Mr. Colby: It would stretch out the time.
Adm. Moorer: If we continued bombing, they couldn't move into Phnom Penh permanently. They couldn't interdict Phnom Penh's LOC. Otherwise they could try to cut off supplies of rice and oil with a view to causing an internal collapse. If they try a frontal assault, they would lose heavily. They're complaining about their losses and their supply problems now.
Mr. Kissinger: After we stop the bombing, you think it will take from 3 to 6 months to unravel?
Mr. Colby: That's about right.
Mr. Kissinger: What incentive do the North Vietnamese have not to await that process.
Mr. Colby: Maybe they could negotiate taking over a going operation, rather than start at the bottom.
Adm. Moorer: They can't replace all the bureaucratic structure.
Mr. Kissinger: Then they would be talking about a facade coalition.
Adm. Moorer: They'd almost have to, to make it work.
Mr. Kissinger: You mean effective domination by the Communists with just enough of the present structure to run it.
Mr. Colby: With Sihanouk.
Mr. Kissinger: You consider that the probable outcome?
Mr. Colby: Yes.
Adm. Moorer: With the three Communist leaders in the front row with Sihanouk, but holding the real power.
Mr. Colby: It would be similar to the Lao Government in 1962 but with the Pathet Lao in a stronger position.
Mr. Kissinger: Something like the Lao Government in '62 wouldn't be so bad.
Mr. Colby: You had some rightists, some Pathet Lao, with a small, thin edge of Souvanna Phouma. The Souvanna moved away from the Communists and associated himself with the Government side.
Mr. Kissinger: The tactical question would be whether this should be brought about through direct negotiation with Sihanouk, negotiation with the Cambodians in Cambodia, or let the situation unravel and let the Cambodians bring it about with their opposite numbers.
Mr. Carver: From the point of view of South Vietnam, the longer Hanoi has to wait for unrestricted access in Cambodia, the more difficult it is for them to move in South Vietnam. The longer they have to wait, the less chance they have of improving their political prospects in South Vietnam, which are now fairly bleak. This argues for stretching out the Cambodian unravelling. If we don't care, it can happen faster.
Mr. Kissinger: Stretching it out means we do nothing diplomatically?
Mr. Carver: We should not do the negotiating. We should let Sirik Matak, In Tam and Cheng Heng -- not Lon Nol -- do the negotiating. We can use Lon Nol's status and the 180,000-man army as chips.
Mr. Kissinger: Without a cease-fire?
Mr. Carver: Yes. The Phnom Penh Government is trying to bargain for a cease-fire. But the importance of Cambodia to the U.S. is its impact on South Vietnam.
Adm. Moorer: Also, the North Vietnamese are holding up in Laos waiting to see how Cambodia comes out.
Mr. Colby: If we leave it to the Phnom Penh Government, they have a disinclination for any positive negotiation. We have to go around them -- see what we can do with Sihanouk. Chou En-Lai is the real supporter of Sihanouk.
Mr. Kissinger: Why not stretch it out by talking to Sihanouk and try to get a cease-fire in return. Then the situation could unravel during the negotiation process.
Mr. Colby: Sihanouk wouldn't give us a cease-fire to negotiate with without assurances for himself.
Mr. Porter: Didn't we make this pitch before and he wouldn't play?
Mr. Colby: No, not a simple ceasefire so as to negotiate.
Mr. Porter: What about a ceasefire in return for a cessation of bombing on July 23?
Mr. Colby: My guess is no.
Mr. Carver: It's not just "bombing". It's B-52, tactical air and resupply. Without all these, FANK's ability to fight will collapse. If we can supply them, FANK's ability to hang on remains.
Mr. Kissinger: Are they willing to fight?
Adm. Moorer: If Lon Nol were out, Fernandez in, and the troops were paid, they will fight.
Mr. Carver: Yes.
Mr. Kissinger: Can we do this by August 15?
Mr. Colby: There are too many 'ifs'. I think the situation will ooze away.
Mr. Carver: I agree with Admiral Moorer. We can make FANK a force that the Communists will pay a price to dissolve.
Mr. Kissinger: For three years we have been maintaining a low profile. Will the Cambodians be able to get done what is needed without the Americans to tell them what to do? In four weeks, can we get Lon Nol out, Fernandez in, and get the troops paid? Can we do it in four weeks when we couldn't do it in three years?
Mr. Carver: No.
Mr. Kissinger: Should we get into a negotiation with Sihanouk hoping to drag it out that way? I assume we're agreed that the principal objective would be to drag it out.
Mr. Carver: The two things are not mutually inconsistent. It would still be better to strengthen Phnom Penh.
Mr. Kissinger: If talking to Sihanouk will be bad for Phnom Penh, how much better off would they be if we don't talk to Sihanouk. It makes no sense to talk to Sihanouk without a hope of getting somewhere.
Mr. Colby: The road to decision-making in Southeast Asia is paved with 'ifs'.
Mr. Kissinger: We can live with the 'ifs' if we have an understanding of what the odds are. If it takes three problematical factors to stretch out the situation for six months, and if one of these factors is not there, how much does this knock off the odds? If we can get six months, this would get us into the dry season and that would be good. But if there is a collapse in Cambodia by September because the U.S. Executive branch and the Congress got themselves in a position where their hands were tied, this would be disastrous. If we can avoid that, it would be demonstrably preferable. But what game can the Chinese play if the U.S. deprives them of the arguments they can use? If we're bombing, and Chou can deliver a bombing halt, he has something the North Vietnamese and Sihanouk can understand. But if he has to invent something, that's something else. The Chinese would prefer a neutral, non-North Vietnamese dominated Cambodia, but they're not going to give up their position in the Communist world. They would even take Sihanouk as an independent force leaning toward them.
Mr. Colby: If a negotiation puts Sihanouk in, this would give him a real role. If the Khmer insurgents take over, Sihanouk will be outside.
Mr. Kissinger: What price would the Chinese be willing to pay to get Sihanouk in? There's an element of negotiation here. It is in Sihanouk's interest to be brought back partly by the U.S.
Adm. Moorer: The first thing to do is try to get Lon Nol out and get a good chain of command.
Mr. Kissinger: We can do that? When is (Ambassador) Swank coming out?
Mr. Porter: In two weeks.
Mr. Carver: We have to get Lon Nol out and get the troops paid.
Mr. Colby: We should do whatever we can to strengthen the regime. Mr. Kissinger: Yes, on either track -- in any event. What concrete steps should we take and in what time frame?
Mr. Colby: With Lon Nol, we should just go up and say "go!"
Mr. Kissinger: Who will do it?
Mr. Porter: The Ambassador should do it.
Mr. Kissinger: If we begin by getting rid of Lon Nol, the whole thing may be understood as a US effort to unravel the situation.
Mr. Colby: Not if we get word to the other leaders.
Mr. Kissinger: Can we get word to the other leaders on what we would do if Lon Nol were out?
Adm. Moorer: We can make Lon Nol leave on the basis of medical requirements.
Mr. Kissinger: But he has said he doesn't want to leave.
Adm. Moorer: We could have a package of assistance we could give them before August 15.
Mr. Carver: But we can't give them a chain of command -- they have to do that themselves.
Mr. Kissinger: We have to have a concrete program. If our only reaction to the Congressional cutoff is to get Lon Nol out, it would be misunderstood.
Mr. Clements: We have to give some commitments to the people we would put in his place.
Mr. Kissinger: Dick (Kennedy), let's get a Working Group to consider what we can concretely do in the next five weeks, including assistance, air support, etc. What we could go to the other three leaders with, saying it won't work unless Lon Nol leaves the country. We would continue existing aid, of course. Each agency designate one man for this. We'll have another WSAG meeting first thing Thursday (July 12).
Adm. Moorer: Our degree of success would be a major factor in deciding whether or not to go with Sihanouk.
Mr. Kissinger: If we're going to make a move with Sihanouk, it would be better to do it before August 15. We're all agreed that strengthening Phnom Penh is desirable whatever scenario we decide on. It puts us in a better bargaining position. We don't have to decide whether to move toward Sihanouk before August 20. I'm not sure we should talk to him unless we know the probable outcome of the negotiation. I don't want to go to the Communist camp.
Mr. Colby: You may want to have a previous discussion with the Chinese.
Mr. Kissinger: They would have to tell me what the outcome would be.
Mr. Porter: We could get him out of China.
Mr. Kissinger: I'm not sure we want to.
Mr. Colby: You'd have less press coverage in Peking.
Mr. Kissinger: Do we have two CIA positions: one Colby and one Carver?
Mr. Colby: I favor trying with Sihanouk. There's a remote chance Sihanouk can be built up to actual power with a tendency toward less than a total Communist state.
Mr. Rush: We agree.
Mr. Clements: We do too.
Mr. Kissinger: Will talking to Sihanouk disintegrate Phnom Penh?
Mr. Colby: It will be a shock to them, but they won't disintegrate.
Mr. Carver: They won't disintegrate, but if you can get Phnom Penh to do the talking we will be better off. If they won't, we can fall back on ourselves.
Mr. Kissinger: If we can hold Phnom Penh together and talk to Sihanouk, okay. If not, we must weigh what is the most we can get out of six months. An argument for the Sihanouk option may be whether we can use the negotiation to delay the takeover. A second possibility is the long-shot of Bill Colby's. Sihanouk may get more in the front of the action than now appears possible. The Chinese may have an interest here. Is there a Soviet interest? An Indian interest?
Mr. Porter: Sihanouk is interested in getting control of FANK as a balance to the Khmer Rouge. It's the only way he can protect himself against the Communists.
Mr. Kissinger: Those are two arguments for Sihanouk. The third is the disintegration of a great country and the picture of our being run out of Southeast Asia.
Mr. Colby: Any negotiation in which we play a role would be better than being booted out.
Mr. Clements: Is it possible that Sihanouk is the avenue toward which we would turn? The people we get to replace Lon Nol will ask.
Mr. Colby: We'll have to level with them.
Mr. Kissinger: First let's get Lon Nol out and get some positive indications of support out to the other leaders before we start lecturing them on Sihanouk. They need an infusion of confidence first. Then we can do the other.
Adm. Moorer: Who will put it up to them?
Mr. Kissinger: Is General Weyand still there?
Adm. Moorer: He knows Lon Nol well, but he doesn't know In Tam or Sirik Matak.
Mr. Kissinger: I understand you are pulling Tom Enders out of Phnom Penh, too. He's a good man.
Mr. Porter: He wants out. We're replacing him with a good man.
Mr. Rush: Peter Flanigan wants him on the CIEP staff.
Mr. Porter: And we have a good man in mind to replace Coby Swank -- Matt Looram.
Mr. Kissinger: Can we get by Thursday a paper on what we could do to strengthen Phnom Penh militarily, economically and politically. How about Laos?
Mr. Colby briefed from the text attached at Tab C.Colby's briefing, "The Situation in Laos," July 10, attached but not printed.
Adm. Moorer: They're building a two-lane road coming down each side of the mountain -- one lane on each side, 50 miles apart. It's an allweather road.
Mr. Kissinger: They have no intention of getting out of Laos.
Adm. Moorer: No, they have violated every aspect of the agreement in this regard.
Mr. Kissinger: And they know we have no sanctions. Let's get (Ambassador) Graham Martin out to Saigon as fast as possible -- this week. Has the impact of the Congressional action on South Vietnamese morale been serious?
Adm. Moorer: Yes. Vien, their senior military man, says we have been left without leverage on North Vietnam. He says, in the circumstances, they will have to take any action necessary. General Weyand is going to talk to them in detail.
Mr. Kissinger: What are Weyand's instructions?
Adm. Moorer: To get the South Vietnamese reaction to the Congressional action; to reassure SVN of our full support; to examine procedures to see if we are responding quickly enough to replace equipment; to talk to each regional commander.
Mr. Kissinger: And to get in as many supplies as possible.
Mr. Clements: We're doing that.
Adm. Moorer: They're not hurting for lack of supplies.
Mr. Clements: We're also looking at the contract people.
Mr. Kissinger: If the other side is not complying with the agreement, why would we want to remove our contract people.
Adm. Moorer: We're not; we're doing what you said.
Mr. Kissinger: Can we get an estimate of the food supplies for Phnom Penh after August 15 and any problems we foresee?
Adm. Moorer: They have 17 - 19 days supply in the city. Consumption is 600 tons a day. The ability to replace food depends on keeping Highways 5 and 4 and the Mekong River open. It depends on the capability of the insurgents to interdict these routes.
Mr. Colby: That's part of the oozing process.
Adm. Moorer: They can't pull down the curtain on all three routes at once. There is a supply cycle of pull down, then build up.
Mr. Carver: Closing the Mekong between now and September would be difficult.
Mr. Kissinger: Can you get in a lot between now and September?
Adm. Moorer: Yes, we can get in a lot of rice. There's some question of the storage capacity for POL.
Mr. Kissinger: Let's look into that.
Adm. Moorer: It depends on how much the insurgents put into interdicting the river. They have been active on both sides.
Mr. Porter: The Vietnam side too?
Adm. Moorer: Yes, but we got on the Vietnamese about that and there has been no more difficulty.
Mr. Clements: In Cambodia, are we considering just letting it fall apart under the edict of Congress.
Mr. Kissinger: You mean do nothing after August 15? Do you recommend that?
Mr. Clements: No.
Mr. Kissinger: How long can they last without aerial supply?
Mr. Carver: There will be a quick unravelling if we are unable to assist a beleaguered garrison -- two or three months.
Adm. Moorer: This relates to the chain of command question. When they begin to defect, that's the beginning of the end.
Mr. Colby: We could spot the towns where the supplies would go.
Adm. Moorer: The insurgents have left some towns alone.
Mr. Carver: The Government tried to assist two towns, and they were knocked out.
Mr. Clements: We're on a short fuse here. If we try to make a deal with Sihanouk for the long term, where are we headed? What are we trying to accomplish? Is this in the interest of the US or in the interest of the Chinese in the long term?
Mr. Kissinger: We don't give a goddamn about the Chinese. We want to delay the North Vietnamese having unrestricted use of Cambodia for as long as possible. If we get through the dry season, that will be nearly a year. If we can get Sihanouk into a position where the Communists have to take him into account, he might be able to add to the delay. This gives South Vietnam more breathing space. There may be a coincidence of interests between the US and China. But if the situation in Indochina unravels, after our having lost 50,000 men, this is a major international factor. If we can use the Chinese to work with us, fine. But we're not interested in pulling their chestnuts out of the fire.
Mr. Clements: Can we get the Thais to help?
Mr. Kissinger: That's a good question. I should have asked that. Is there anything we can do through Thailand?
Mr. Colby: They'd be a menace if they heard Sihanouk's name. They've been conspicuous enough in Cambodia.
Mr. Porter: If we mix the Thai in, this would keep the North Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Mr. Kissinger: They may stay anyhow as long as it serves their purpose.
Mr. Porter: I agree with Bill Colby.
Mr. Clements: Is there no area of accommodation?
Mr. Colby: We don't have dollars enough to pay the Thai.
Mr. Carver: The Thais would want a piece of Cambodian territory.
Mr. Kissinger: Is there anything the Thai and the South Vietnamese could do to shore up Phnom Penh?
Adm. Moorer: So far as provoking the North Vietnamese is concerned, they'll move when they are ready.
Mr. Kissinger: Could we get General Weyand to look into this problem?
Mr. Porter: I have no objection.
Adm. Moorer: When Embassy Saigon was concerned about supplying ammunition to Cambodian forces across the border, the South Vietnamese said they were willing to do it.
Mr. Porter: How much got to the Cambodians?
Adm. Moorer: We sent a paper to State on May 17.
Mr. Kennedy: This was brought up at an earlier meeting. It was a small unit, and the unit went away.
Mr. Kissinger: In principle, we are anxious to look for excuses to be helpful. For three years we were told we should keep a low profile. There are no awards for restraint. (to Mr. Rush) We want to get a look at the cable you plan to send out. Try to get it over for clearance tomorrow.